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100 Best Albums of the ’90s

From Moby to Nirvana, the records that defined a decade

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Rolling Stone picks the 100 greatest albums of the 1990s.

The Nineties as a musical era started late and ended early — kicked in by the scritchy-scratch power chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” ushered out by the doomy piano intro of “. . . Hit Me Baby One More Time.” Anti-pop defeated by pop — full circle, all apologies. You’ve heard the story.

But the real Nineties were richer, funnier and weirder than that, with fake grunge bands writing better songs than some of the real ones, Eighties holdovers U2 and R.E.M. reaching creative peaks with Achtung Baby and Automatic for the People, Metallica and the Black Crowes co-existing on MTV, Phish tending to the Deadhead nation after Jerry’s passing — and Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer ceding their pop thrones in a few short years to Dr. Dre, Snoop and Eminem. — Brian Hiatt

This is an excerpt from the introduction to Rolling Stone‘s book The ’90s: The Inside Stories From the Decade that Rocked. Copyright © 2010 by Collins Design, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

45

Alanis Morissette, ‘Jagged Little Pill’

Proof that the gods of rock are unfair bastards: A former TV moppet from the not-so-dirty North hooks up with Wilson Phillips' producer and makes an opportunistic angst-rock platter that not only sells 13 million copies — it doesn't suck. In fact, it's damn near flawless, from the hello-it's-me phone rage of "You Oughta Know" to the sisterly "You Learn." And right, Sherlock, "Ironic" isn't ironic — it's just Alanis speaking her piece about the perils of being a girl in a fickle-as-fuck world, singing like an acoustic guitar. Jagged Little Pill is like a Nineties version of Carole King's Tapestry: a woman using her plain soft-rock voice to sift through the emotional wreckage of her youth, with enough heart and songcraft to make countless listeners feel the earth move.

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44

Fugees, ‘The Score’

A hip-hop mod squad from the streets of Dirty Jersey, the Fugees combined streetwise flash with righteous boho cool on their second album to become the biggest rap franchise this side of the Wu-Tang Clan. Lauryn Hill's scorched soul vocals — half Nina Simone, half Al Capone — flavor the Caribbean style of Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel. The Fugees prove themselves a damn fine wedding band with their covers of "Killing Me Softly" and "No Woman, No Cry," but they hit even harder in gems like "Family Business," trading vocals over a loop of Godfather-style acoustic guitar. The Score crosses boundaries of gender and geography, reinventing hip-hop as music for an international refugee camp of brothers and sisters with the inner-city blues. Lauryn and Wyclef took different roads on their solo joints, but The Score laid down the blueprint for the Fugees' vision of the world as a ghetto.

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Rolling Stone's Original 1996 Review

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43

TLC, ‘CrazySexyCool’

Left Eye, Chilli and T-Boz looked like a one-shot when they first emerged from the nascent Atlanta scene with 1992's "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg." But CrazySexyCool was a real shocker, packed bumper to bumper with great songs, sassy vocals and voluptuous beats for burning down the house. "Creep" celebrates the kicks of illicit lust on the down low, "Waterfalls" digs deep into Memphis soul and "If I Was Your Girlfriend" does Prince better than the Artist has all decade. The showstopper: "Red Light Special," an impossibly steamy make-out ballad that undresses and caresses everyone with ears to hear it. CrazySexyCool established TLC as pop pros who could do it all, combining the body slam of hip-hop and the giddy uplift of a jump-rope rhyme without breaking a nail.

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42

PJ Harvey, ‘Rid of Me’

As Butt-Head so eloquently put it, "This chick is weird." Polly Jean Harvey strode out of the English countryside to make the air-guitar record of the decade, exorcising her demons in fierce, funny songs that sometimes even had melodies. On Rid of Me, she summons the thunder of classic Seventies rock with help from producer Steve Albini. Harvey wails about that not-so-moist feeling in "Dry," proclaims herself "king of the world" in "50-Ft. Queenie" and raises hell in "Man-Size," putting her leather boots on to go stomp the whole planet into submission.

Rolling Stone's Original 1993 Review

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41

Guns n’ Roses, ‘Use Your Illusion I and II’

It had been five years since Appetite for Destruction, so when Use Your Illusion I and II — separate albums released simultaneously — dropped, they exploded. Slash and Izzy Stradlin let fly a brutal twin-guitar assault, taking all "the trash … dumped into the brain" and firing it back with machine-gun fury. A soaring version of Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" is their can't-we-all-just-get-along plea. Guns n' Roses couldn't — even with themselves. But these albums stand on their own incendiary terms, souvenirs of a season in hell.

Rolling Stone's Original 1991 Review of 'Use Your Illusion I'

Rolling Stone's Original 1991 Review of 'Use Your Illusion II'

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40

Neil Young, ‘Harvest Moon’

The title echoes Harvest, Young's countryish album of two decades earlier, and the music recalls its gentle flavor. Harvest was a mellow bestseller, an uncharacteristic middle-of-the-road pit stop in a decade of deeply personal and sometimes highly eccentric releases, and Harvest Moon also sounds as if it was made for lazy hammock-swinging afternoons. But beneath its placid surface are the craggy scars of middle age, when holding onto and cherishing love (see the title track) is a lot more difficult than finding it.

Rolling Stone's Original 1992 Review

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39

My Bloody Valentine, ‘Loveless’

Technically, this album isn't instrumental — Bilinda Butcher's dreamy croon wafts throughout, gently defining post-punk girlishness. Guitarist and resident genius Kevin Shields also sings sometimes. But the instrumental quality of the vocals — the fact that they matter as tone, not language — helps define Loveless' new paradigm. No more would experimental bands require pompous poets ranting about lambs on Broadway. Sonic textures, from electrical-storm dissonance to feather-soft harmonics, could carry meaning and hit the gut. Imparting this truth and setting the stage for post-rock, electronica, Garbage and Beck, My Bloody Valentine vanished into the ether they'd generated. If they never return, Loveless was enough.

Rolling Stone's Original 1992 Review

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38

Soundgarden, ‘Superunknown’

Soundgarden's step up to rock & roll immortality came late in their day, after spells with both Sub Pop and SST Records, and after the band first grabbed the platinum ring with 1991's Badmotorfinger. But this brutish beauty gave Soundgarden a lock on the "Led Zeppelin for the Nineties" crown. A heavy-metal band with punk-rock nobility and no time for lemon-squeezin' corn, guitarist Kim Thayil, bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron hammer Chris Cornell's vocal anguish in "Fell on Black Days," "Black Hole Sun" and "Like Suicide" into brilliantly warped power-thump sculpture.

Rolling Stone's Original 1997 Review

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37

Johnny Cash, ‘American Recordings’

It's rare when forty years into a career, an artist unleashes an indisputable masterpiece. Johnny Cash pulled it off, though. American Recordings was the brainchild of Cash and producer Rick Rubin, who had the genius to recognize that Cash's incomparable voice alone with an acoustic guitar and a clutch of great songs was a can't-miss proposition. Cash's own tunes ("Drive On") align perfectly with apt selections by the likes of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and (no joke) Glenn Danzig. American Recordings is stark, stirring and, at times, even funny. Best of all it restored a master to much-deserved pre-eminence.

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36

A Tribe Called Quest, ‘The Low End Theory’

The nice guys finished first. Queens-born and -bred A Tribe Called Quest brought you egoless hip-hop that let you dance to their smooth, jazzy sounds, chock with horns and upright bass and chill alongside their laid-back attitude. Producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad polished the mix, and MC Phife played a great second fiddle in rhymes about SkyPagers, the record industry and girls ("Tanya, Tameeka/Sharon, Karen/Tina, Stacy/Julie, Tracy"), but, really, it was Q-Tip's show. His distinct nasal voice light and delicious, his liquid flow as warm and comforting as an electric blanket, his natural charisma shining through the speakers, Q-Tip makes The Low End Theory feel like an easy conversation with an old friend.

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35

Wilco, ‘Being There’

The nineteen tracks on Being There are spread across two CDs — a sound aesthetic decision. Each disc functions as a self-contained entity digestible in a single forty-minute sitting. Together, both halves aspire to the nervy sprawl of double-album predecessors such as London Calling and Exile on Main Street, records that forged unified personal statements out of a bewildering variety of styles. Being There is a product of ambitious versatility, particularly in the string-band textures conjured by multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston and the pliant rhythms of bassist John Stirratt and drummer Ken Coomer. Wilco explore the clavinet-fueled funk of the Band on “Kingpin” and crank up the Sun Sessions-style reverb on “Someday Soon.” The band also bounces like the Beatles in a dance hall on “Why Would You Wanna Live” and evokes an air of desert mystery in “Hotel Arizona.”

Rolling Stone’s Original 1996 Review

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33

Eminem, ‘The Slim Shady LP’

Here's where Eminem introduced himself as a crazy white geek, the "class-clown freshman/Dressed like Les Nessman." Hip-hop had never heard anything like Em's brain-damaged rhymes on this Dr. Dre—produced album, which earned Em respect, fortune, fame and a lawsuit from his mom.

Rolling Stone's Original 1999 Review

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32

Nine Inch Nails, ‘The Downward Spiral’

Trent Reznor has the shock-antic instincts of an old Hollywood B-movie producer. He made publicity hay out of the fact that part of this album was recorded in the L.A. mansion where Sharon Tate was murdered by Charles Manson's gang; he also inspired arenas of teenagers to sing along to the unforgettable chorus of "Closer": "I want to fuck you like an animal." Yet this is finely wrought gore, a swan dive into Reznor's deep vat of discontent, in which he vents as effectively in tense, muted moments ("I Do Not Want This") as he does in the full-bore, machine-generated terror of the title track. In a genre — industrial rock — wracked with cliché, Reznor demonstrates the many shades of gray that make up abject despair.

Rolling Stone's 1997 Review

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31

Bob Dylan, ‘Time Out of Mind’

Having shed one persona after another for more than three decades, Bob Dylan finally found one he could embrace: brokedown, death-haunted bluesman. "I'm sick of love," he groans on Time's opening track, and, man, he sounds it. That sets the tone for the ten songs that follow, a night journey that's all roads and no destination, all outskirts and no town. The sad-eyed man of "Highlands," a swirling sixteen-minute epic, is still moving, however, as the album ends, desperate to elude the reaper, nearly out of his mind with weariness, nearly out of time.

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Rolling Stone's 2001 Review

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30

Green Day, ‘Dookie’

Millions of us made time to listen to Billie Joe Armstrong whine as he and his band of Bay Area punk snots won America's heart with fast guitars, bouncy drums and the fakest English accents ever recorded. Their hits fit together like a stack of Pringles: "Basket Case" takes off with a case of the creeps and a melody that plays tricks on you, while "Longview" and "When I Come Around" vent the usual teen spirit with groovy hooks that the Bay City Rollers would have appreciated. Green Day took the booming Cali-punk revival to middle America: Cuter than Muppets, funnier than Weird Al, Green Day showed no signs of growing up here — which made their later transformation into politically charged arena-rockers that much more remarkable.

Rolling Stone's 1998 Review

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29

Wu-Tang Clan, ‘Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’

The nine-MC Wu-Tang Clan — including the ruckus-bringer Ol' Dirty Bastard, sword-sharp GZA and Kennedy­charismatic Method Man — burst out of the slums of Staten Island by capturing the sound of chaos on tape: tracks by RZA that were so rugged they recall pre-sampler, basement-collated hip-hop. Rhymes about drug dealing, project living, beef and martial arts. Furious flows that roar through speakers like controlled screaming. The Wu create an air of wildness that promised violence to anyone who challenged them and to some who didn't. A generation of fans memorized every word.

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28

Madonna, ‘Ray of Light’ On ‘Ray of Light,’

Madonna finally gets back into the groove, rocking the dance beats that made her a star in the first place, for her most shamelessly disco album since You Can Dance. Madonna's rhythm resurrection sounds like some kind of spiritual transformation, and since it accompanied her discovery of yoga and motherhood, it probably was. Producer William Orbit plugs in the techno gadgets, but it's Madonna's passion that makes the loudest bang, on powerhouse tracks like "Drowned World/Substitute for Love" and "Little Star." And in the title smash, Madonna throws herself a tantrum on the global dance floor as if she'd never been away.

Rolling Stone's Original 1998 Review

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27

Rage Against the Machine, ‘Rage Against the Machine’

"Anger is a gift," vocalist Zack de la Rocha proclaims in a venomous whisper in "Freedom," and Rage Against the Machine spread the wealth around, with an electrifying vengeance, all over the rest of their debut album. Gunning de la Rocha's incantatory rapping with rib-rattling slam, Rage Against the Machine get hot and nasty about authority with acute lyric detail and stunning force. Rage Against the Machine's mix of radical politics and headbanging kicks was a startling anomaly amid the self-absorbed ennui of the Year Grunge Broke. But the album's commercial success was a crucial reaffirmation of rock's potency as a weapon of protest. With Rage Against the Machine, subversion — in the great, defiant tradition of the Clash and the MC5 — was alive, and thrilling, in the mainstream.

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